NEA Scout: the next solar sailing mission – TTG


NEA Scout is an exciting new mission that was recently selected by NASA's Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) by a team from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Marshall Space Flight Center. This innovative, low-cost concept will map an asteroid and demonstrate several technological firsts, including being the first CubeSat to reach an asteroid.

Before sending astronauts to any new space environments, it is important to send robotic scouts to survey the destination and learn about the risks and challenges they may pose to future human explorers. Near-Earth Asteroid Scout, or NEA Scout, will perform reconnaissance of an asteroid using a CubeSat and solar sail propulsion, which offers navigation agility during cruise for approaching the target. Propelled by sunlight, NEA Scout will flyby and observe a small asteroid (<300 feet in diameter), taking pictures and observing its position in space, the asteroid's shape, rotational properties, spectral class, local dust and debris field, regional morphology and regolith properties. NEA Scout's observations will directly assist in retiring the unknowns related to human exploration of asteroids and planetary small bodies. The data collected will enhance the current understanding of asteroidal environments and will yield key information for future human asteroid explorers. (NASA JPL)


This mission clearly doesn’t have the cachet of the trio of probes arriving at Mars this month or the idea of quantum space travel. But I’m intrigued by this next adventure in solar sailing. The Planetary Society is sharing lessons learned from their crowd sourced Light Sail 2 mission. I wrote about that mission back in July 2019. One thing discovered by Light Sail 2 was that atmospheric drag exists at 720 kilometers above earth. Even with that unexpected drag, the sail is still sailing the heavens far beyond its expected life.

The launch date for NEA Scout is set for 1 November this year. I look forward to seeing how this sail performs beyond Earth’s orbit. Perhaps the next Light Sail mission by the Planetary Society will place a solar wind propelled CubeSat into a high lunar orbit. That would be marvelous and eminently doable. I see sailing the solar winds as an excellent means of deep space exploration. Historically appropriate, I think.



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7 Responses to NEA Scout: the next solar sailing mission – TTG

  1. Avatar mcohen says:

    when science fiction becomes fact.
    I read about this in a magazine called “Omni” which was science based, published by the same bunch who published “Penthouse” the interior decoration magazine.

  2. Avatar Barbara Ann says:

    Sailing the solar winds is an evocative idea, as Arthur C. Clarke to his credit, knew way back in the early 60’s. I assume that presently these craft are only able to accelerate downwind (away from the Sun). If there were a way to give them a keel of some kind that would open endless possibilities. Beating to windward back from the asteroid belt with cargo aboard, for example.
    Failing that, the return journey could be made by sailing downwind to Jupiter for a slingshot back towards Earth – all without the need for chemical fueled rocket propulsion. A 21st or 22nd century equivalent of the Atlantic trade routes is a real possibility. Solar propelled ships bringing precious ore or refined goods back from the New Colonies. Tempting targets for space pirates.

  3. Barbara Ann,
    I thought these things were just downwind or down sun sails myself, like hoisting a poncho with a couple of poles on a canoe to cross a lake. In the vacuum of space there would be nothing for a keel or centerboard to create the needed resistance for a solar sail to beat to windward. However, according to the Planetary Society and Bill Nye, LightSail 2 can gain some momentum tacking towards the Sun by angling the sail. Angular momentum is probably not the right descriptor, but it’s like ricocheting a ball off a wall. And as you said, these sail powered ships could also use celestial bodies for a gravitational slingshot effect. We’d be using gravitational tide tables to pilot across the heavens. The concept does feed the imagination.

  4. Avatar Johnb says:

    Shouldn’t a sail function as a sail in either water with a keel or the vacuum of Space without one ? A space anchor might be more difficult to envisage.
    On a cost basis entire fleets could be justified to move non time sensitive material around the Solar System.
    A potential means for Satellites, Landers and Rovers constructed beyond Earth’s gravitational field to be delivered to a target gravitational field to perform work.

  5. Johnb,
    No, the physics governing light sailing, especially in the vacuum of space, is very different from the physics of sailing atmospheric wind currents on the water, ice or land. Light and light sails do not react to the venturi effect. Nor does a keel or daggerboard offer any kind of lateral resistance in the vacuum of space. It’s much like rocket flight dynamics in space is very different than aircraft flight dynamics in the atmosphere. You’re right about the space anchor, though.

  6. Avatar JerseyJeffersonian says:

    Thanks for this post, TTG. I remember reading this story from Arthur C. Clarke in my younger years:
    It fired my imagination, for sure. Finding various ways to exploit this technology certainly is a meritorious notion.

  7. Avatar Leith says:

    It has been almost 11 years since the first solar sail launch – Ikaros. And six years since JAXA lost contact probably due to it going into hibernation mode. Wonder where it is now? Perhaps still in solar orbit? JAXA had been planning another, Okeanos, a hybrid with both a solar sail and an ion engine. It would have gone way beyond the asteroid belt to the Trojan asteroids in Jupiter’s orbit. It was to have a 1600 sq meter sail, and it was to have a 100 kg lander to pick up rock samples to return to earth. An ambitious program, but unfortunately that proposal lost out to LiteBIRD, a completely different non solar sail mission. But maybe in the future?
    Regarding NEA Scout, I could not find any data on the payload weight. But it is only breadbox size and needs an 80 sq meter sail. That sail is only five percent of the area of Okeanos.

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